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Military program aims to shore up military marriages before, after deployment

Deployment can send a tidal wave through the best of military marriages.

The disruption, the separation, the long-distance communications, the missed birthdays and anniversaries all take their toll. So do family crises that must be handled by someone suddenly thrust into single-parent status. It’s the water heater and air conditioner that go on the fritz immediately after a partner departs for the war zone. It’s the loneliness, the fear of a rap on the door in the middle of the night.

Sometimes the reunion is worse. After months of separation, marital roles have changed. One person has disciplined the children, balanced the checkbook, made long-term decisions. The marriage has been redefined, and the partners often struggle with the unfolding consequences.

Georgia’s Army National Guard has been tackling the problem for several years with a program called Strong Bonds, an effort to prepare couples — and most recently singles — for deployment’s separation and reunion. It includes lessons learned from the 48th Brigade’s yearlong deployment to Iraq in 2005. More to the point, it has prepared soldiers and their families for the brigade’s imminent departure for Afghanistan.

1st Lt. Leslie Nelson, a chaplain assigned to Headquarters Company, 148th Brigade Support Battalion, has been a Strong Bonds instructor for two years. She said one reality keeps recurring at each of the sessions.

“We’ve learned that soldiers communicate really well with each other, but they don’t always communicate well with their spouses,” the Henry County resident said. “So Strong Bonds gives us a chance to get the soldier together with their spouse and really learn communications skills — skills that will extend the life of their marriage.”

The Pentagon reported an armed forces divorce rate somewhat lower than the general population in 2008. But critics contend that Defense Department numbers do not include the large number of people who leave the military each year.

Georgia Guardsmen and spouses attending the Strong Bonds program undergo a jam-packed weekend of activities, seminars, one-on-one interaction and a healthy dose of togetherness. It begins on a Friday night — about 200 couples participated at a Savannah hotel in January — and ends Sunday afternoon.

“It’s a chaplain-led program, but it’s not Christian-based,” Nelson said. “We talk about the danger signs in relationships, what to look for when things are going wrong. Common things like withdrawal and avoidance, misinterpretation, escalation.”

Then the communication block kicks in. “We use something we call the floor,” she said. “When someone is talking, they have the floor. That means the person listening isn’t planning how to come back or interrupt. They’re just listening.”

Listening is essential, said the former Foursquare Church associate pastor. “We’re teaching them how to actually hear what their spouse is saying,” she said. “If a couple comes into Strong Bonds with big issues, we don’t try to get them to fix them in front of everybody. We just try to equip them to go home and really deal with it.” Sunday morning, couples may attend a worship service, and they are given a chance to renew their marriage vows. “It’s a really cool ceremony,” Nelson confided.

Staff Sgt. Darren Humphries attended the January program with his wife, Janda. The message came through loud and clear. “It taught me to shut up and listen,” he said with a chuckle.

This will be the second deployment for the Macon couple. The first one in 2005 came a month after they were married. Both of them had been married before. Each has a child: Darren’s son, Tristan, age 16; and Janda’s son, Gregory, 12.

The separation was rough, Janda said.

“We spoke quite often the whole time he was away,” she said, “but we argued a lot. It caused a lot of conflict that remained when he got back home. It almost cost us our marriage.”

She believes it will be different this time.

“I believe we will be OK,” she said. “Our communication level was horrible. But we’re a unit now. It takes extra effort when you become one and you have to do a lot of listening as well as compromising and planning together.”

PRACTICAL TOOLS

Sgt. Humphries, with nine years in the military, including four in the Marines, said Strong Bonds offered some practical tools.

“Now, if a problem arises, we’ll discuss it and come up with a solution together,” he said. “I’ve learned that I have to give her an opportunity to speak and be heard, to not be judgmental. We haven’t had an argument since we’ve been back. I’d like to go again.”

He also learned some precautions when he returns from Afghanistan. “When I came back the first time, they already had a fixed schedule,” he recalled. “It was running smoothly, so my coming back kind of disrupted things.”

Strong Bonds suggested a different approach. “It taught me how to ease back into it, to make suggestions in a different way,” Humphries said.

Spc. Tavokeia Tolbert is single, but he also learned a great deal from the January program. It will help him to relate, he said, not only to his girlfriend but to everyone. He was particularly struck by the technique of paraphrasing.

“If you’re listening and paraphrasing back to them, it helps you remember what they said,” the Valdosta resident said. “It also lets them know that you understand what they’re saying, and it is important to you.”

Tolbert believes he will also be less likely to react inappropriately now to circumstances and events.

“I learned how to think about things, to take a deep breath before I act,” he said. “I learned to calm myself down.”

Nelson said feedback from soldiers and their families has been awesome.

“We’ve had soldiers come in who ‘say this is it,’ ” she said. “They would tell us they were attending just because it was one more thing, but they were pretty sure they were getting a divorce.”

But they attended the course and months later were still married.

“They tell us things are great,” Nelson said. “We really use the ‘floor’ they tell us. We talk about things now.”

Nelson understands the impact of deployment, both from the academic and practical side. Her husband, Lt. Col. Don Nelson, returned from Iraq just last year. She knows about bad water heaters, things that go bump in the night and role reversals.

Her two daughters, ages 19 and 16, are not looking forward to her leaving.

“They’re just starting to feel the pangs of me being pulled away,” she said. “But they’re wonderful kids. They know this is God’s call on my life and how much I love the soldiers.”

Janda Humphries also is more confident this time, largely because of Nelson and the other Strong Bonds instructors. “It will be difficult, of course,” she said. “I would prefer that he stay with me. But we’re working to keep it together, and we’ll continue working on it while he’s gone.”

She believes she now has the tools to cope. “It’s just staying strong,” she stressed. “It’s accepting what he does and the fact that he loves doing it.”

To contact Gene Rector, call 923-3109, extension 239.

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